Last week the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) called on U.S. policymakers, wireless carriers and technology leaders to work together to ensure that United States economic and national security remains secure as wireless carriers roll out the 5G cellular networks. In a white paper titled “The National Security Challenge of Fifth Generation (5G) Wireless Communications: Winning the Race to 5G, Securely,” the INSA warned that Chinese dominance of the market for 5G equipment could undermine U.S. economic and national security, and the group called for incentives to bolster U.S. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) manufacturing.
One of the key risks is a reliance on Chinese-made equipment, while another is the potential theft of U.S. intellectual property and national security information. Other worries include the sabotage of civilian critical infrastructure and the inability of the U.S. military or government agencies to communicate and operate securely.
The report added that any Chinese dominance in the manufacturing of equipment could challenge America’s traditional position as the global leader in technology innovation. The paper offered six key recommendations that the American government and private sector should take to develop a 5G network that is compatible with U.S. national security interests, and also to promote investments in U.S. ICT and wireless innovation.
“As the U.S. economy becomes increasingly dependent on data-intensive technology, it will be critical that U.S. communications and data transmissions be kept secure,” said Chuck Alsup, INSA president, via a statement. “In addition to installing reliable 5G equipment in the United States, we may need to better adapt current technologies and develop new technologies that enable secure communications on insecure networks overseas.”
INSA recommended the following steps:
1) The White House must promote government-industry collaboration on steps to mitigate the national security risks.
2) To understand foreign threats to U.S. communications, the Intelligence Community should assess foreign strategies for influencing U.S. 5G wireless infrastructure and IoT applications, including scrutinizing proposed technology acquisitions.
3) Overseas, the United States should continue urging allies and partners to ban Chinese 5G equipment from their telecom networks and, where that fails, design technical solutions that enable U.S. forces and government agencies to operate securely.
4) The White House should create a White House Public-Private Working Group to define U.S. Trade Policy and Strategy regarding wireless technology and innovation, including 5G and IoT applications.
5) The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) should update policies and regulations to remove barriers to rapid deployment of 5G and to make more radio spectrum available.
6) Congress should develop legislation to expand U.S. private sector investment in ICT and wireless innovation.
“Ensuring long-term telecommunications security will require collaboration between U.S. government agencies and private sector companies, as well as their counterparts in allied countries,” added Alsup. “Public-private partnership is essential to the development of a resilient and secure 5G infrastructure.”
The Threat Vector
The severity of the Chinese threat to 5G security is still a matter for debate, but experts agree that the U.S. telecommunications industry needs to remain vigilant. Already equipment from several notable Chinese firms has been banned for use in American government agencies as well as contractors that work with the U.S. government.
“This is mostly targeting Huawei, which is the largest telecom equipment provider in the world, and to some extent ZTE,” said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at TIRIAS Research.
“Much of this is driven from a competitive standpoint,” McGregor told ClearanceJobs. “With regard to security, you have to remember that security is like an onion with many layers. If you encrypt and decryption the information as the source and destination, then it really doesn’t matter what pipe you are using. Is it feasible that a Chinese company could use its technology for spying purposes? Yes, but no more than U.S. companies or companies from any other countries.”
For this reason 5G alone may not be the only issue at hand.
“The U.S. needs to move ahead with 5G deployments because the volume of mobile data traffic continues to grow at a rapid rate, and there’s no end in sight,” added Stephen Blum, founder and principal analyst at Tellus Venture Associates.
“There’s nothing magic about 5G, it’s just newer technology that allows more data to be transmitted more cheaply, assuming the infrastructure is in place,” Blum told ClearanceJobs.
A ban could cause its own problems.
“The cost of economic inefficiency has to weighed against the genuine security benefits, which means identifying actual risks, not just potential ones,” said Blum.
The core issue is the need to balance innovation, economy, and security. And when it comes to national security, the greater emphasis must be on security.
“It is important to the U.S. military to have competitive equipment made in the U.S. or at least its allies,” said TIRIAS Research’s McGregor.
“But blocking out the Chinese companies won’t make the U.S. or other western companies any more competitive,” he told ClearanceJobs. “A better way to address this is through incentives and investments to help promote domestic investment and innovation.”